When Jessica Collins and photographer Iwan Baan visited Lagos in 2013 to document a radical new school, the Makoko slum was facing demolition. Now the building’s global recognition is helping to give the community fresh hope
Driving into Lagos along the Third Mainland Bridge, the city greets us with a sky as thick as coal-slurry and a soundtrack as soulful as Fela Kuti. Pedestrians slowly criss-cross the eight lanes as we drive, while could-be Area Boys transform the beds of pickup trucks into mobile azonto dance-floors.
Halfway across we turn and spot the Makoko Floating School rising like a beacon out of the murky Lagos Lagoon. It is December 2013, and this is our first glimpse of the inspiring triangular timber structure – only three storeys high, yet commanding the attention of all who travel across the longest bridge in Africa.
We are travelling to meet Nigerian architect Kunlé Adeyemi, the founder and principal of NLÉ Works who, in collaboration with the Makoko Waterfront Community, conceived, designed and built the floating school. Makoko, Nigeria’s oldest slum, is home to a population of roughly 80,000 residents who, over the centuries, have banded together to create an informal but fully working city-on-stilts at the edge of the lagoon.
With most of the population working in the fish-smoking or fishing industry, a whiff of Makoko smells of just that. The air is thick with fumes; smog seeps out from the hundreds of wood-burning kilns and smokehouses scattered across this community.
As it grew, the lagoon gradually became divided into a series of informal canals, through which taxi-canoes are manoeuvred by nimble young bodies. From the stilted architecture to the re-appropriation of found objects (such as the emptied parboiled-rice bags that double as roof shelters) to canoes equipped with stereo-systems serving as mobile music-boxes, the inhabitants of Makoko have adapted their lives completely to surviving on water.
Three years ago, however, the Lagos authorities announced that in just 72 hours, a process of forcible eviction was to begin here. Some 3,000 residents have since been displaced from Makoko – regarded as a potentially lucrative waterfront site – leaving behind a resilient yet sceptical community.
Around the time the evictions began, Kunlé Adeyemi began asking questions about the adaptability and sustainability of Makoko, and other such African coastal communities. The answers he got led to an immediate architectural response: his Makoko Floating School, completed in March 2013, would primarily serve as a school and community centre, while also being scalable and adaptable for other purposes.
Dressed in a crisp linen shirt and breezy summer trousers, Kunlé meets us at the main water-taxi dock. Like the school he designed, he offers a bright contrast against the charcoal waterscape of Makoko. We sail through the labyrinth of canals as Kunlé explains the ins and outs of this unique waterworld.
It’s a Sunday morning in a country where 50% of the population is Christian, and for once this part of the city has a near sci-fi silence to it – save for the dip of a paddle into the water, and the sound of young children yelling “Yavo! Yavo!” (francophone slang for “foreigner”). We pass a beauty salon, photo-booth, grocery stores, a myriad of churches, DVD and barber shops before finally arriving at a clearing where the floating school stands tall in the water.
When he set about building the school, Kunlé was well aware the state government would show resistance to it, given the unplanned nature of the community. His first step was to look around the community for design solutions. In Makoko, there’s an “anything that floats” mentality when it comes to building materials, so Kunlé decided to buoy the school on floating barrels and locally sourced timber.
Unskilled local workers were hired to build the structure, with the idea that they could then go out and build their own homes with the techniques learned while erecting the school. Everyone in the community understands its value, not least because all of the materials used are ones they live with each day.
Inexpensive and elementary to assemble, the main aim of the school was to generate a new, sustainable and ecological building system for the teeming population of Africa’s coastal regions. The floating structure adapts to the tidal changes and varying water levels of the lagoon, making it invulnerable to flooding and storm surges.
Yet a more immediate impact of the new building was the powerful sense of ownership that Makoko’s inhabitants derived from it – even before the doors to the school were opened. As the only public space in the area, it has become a vital meeting-point for the community where, when classes are out, market ladies park their boats and fishermen steal some shade to mend their nets.
Visiting Makoko as foreigners back in 2013, many people had questions about why we were there and what our intentions were. But when we explained our purpose was to document the new school, doors and hearts seemed to fly open, with residents eager to show us their homes and businesses, built with their own hands. Indeed, the pride they displayed did not seem so very different from what we see in professional architects when they complete a project they have poured their heart and soul into.
A few months after the school finally opened, we made a second trip to Makoko to further document the community and school in full function. By then it was abundantly clear that, while life in Makoko is synonymous with struggle and resilience, the floating school had made an important statement that the people living there do matter.
Makoko was on the verge of demolition in early 2013. Since then, its floating school has earned a “pin” on Google maps, and on 20 April this year, the Lagos State Ministry of Physical Planning and Urban Development announced it is considering incorporating the school’s structure into a regeneration plan for the entire Makoko community.
“This is a rare and significant moment in history,” Kunlé says now, “where innovation is finally matched with an equally open-minded reconsideration of established policies … [It] is an important signal for mobilising the local and global interest that is critical for addressing the challenges and opportunities posed by rapid urbanisation and climate change in developing African waterfront cities.”
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